The Efficacy of Skepticism

The debate has been raging for a while now – is pulling the rug from underneath people the best strategy for skeptical activism? Is this the best strategy we have for changing minds and is changing minds our goal anyway?

Should skeptics seduce with alluring scents only to pounce when people least expect it? Or, is it better to come clean, put the facts out there and hope people don’t run off scared?

I happen to think critical thinking is the single best, most useful thing a person can learn. I also think that the evidence is fairly conclusive – the more a person learns about science, philosophy and critical thinking the less likely they are to be seduced into the gargoyle infested lands of pseudoscience and the supernatural.

The reason for this correlation is fairly simple. Thinking is actually a skill. We all think, but there are varying degrees of thinking: Faulty at one end of the continuum; fuzzy in the middle; articulate and clear at the other end. As a person learns more about science and knowledge, the more likely their scatter plot of thinking gravitates towards the clear, articulate and logical end.

The world needs more people who recognise that they have an innate tendency to believe the incredible, as we all do, and are disciplined enough to apply critical thinking filter to ideas, even their most cherished beliefs.

Skeptical communication strategies in a nutshell

Before we dive in and look at the various ways of communicating a skepical message, I am going to assume that the desired outcome of the communication is positive change. That could be changing minds, educating people or at least provoking doubt.

1. The “Turd in gold foil” accommodationist approach

Briefly: This has many adherents on the Internet and is appealing because it emphasises not stepping on toes and favours indirectly confronting popular or cherished beliefs.
Pros: It is likely to be received in a more favourable way. Seducing the reader is a powerful approach and done well, it can be very effective.
Cons: It is an indirect approach that can be seen as deceptive because the true intention of the message is covert. Indirect approaches sometimes are less effective than more direct measures because other messages obscure the key message.

2. The stealth “isomorphic” attack

Briefly: A more forceful approach, but it flies under the radar because we’re using metaphors and analogy to deliver the message. It is a powerful approach, particularly when the analogy doesn’t clash with the recipients current beliefs.
Pros: Has the possibility of changing minds as it does not inflame cognitive dissonance. Is great at teaching critical thinking because analogy can be used to outline the process of skeptical evaluation in story form.
Cons: Doesn’t activate cognitive dissonance, which is sometimes a desirable approach. It is an indirect approach, which can mean it isn’t an informative approach – more of a delivery system for teaching process and shifting perspectives.

3. The “straight shooting, take no prisoners” approach

Briefly: This is the kind of uncompromising approach that can be seen on PZ Myers blog Pharyngula (a highly enertaining and informative read and the most popular science blog on the web). This is honesty in action – expressing the facts, the scientific evidence and openly criticising nonsense claims.
Pros: Causes cognitive dissonance, provokes response and is positive in the sense it calls “bullshit” on bad ideas. It is honest and direct and honours the skeptical mantra that no idea is so sacred that it is off limits from light of science and critical analysis. It is often highly informative and affirmative. Creates a definite demarcation between good ideas based on evidence and sound logic and those that can be considered crap.
Cons: Can turn people off from the message. Often thought of as “preaching to the choir”. Polarising in many cases. Offensive to sensitive types.

Conclusion

I have to admit, I like the last approach. Being direct is honest and I have to respect that. When you really put truth as the barometer of ideas, the direct call-it-how-it-is approach is a great way to go.

It is not the most effective technique to just come out all guns blazing in an attempt to destroy bad arguments.

Approach depends entirely on the goals of the writer/speaker. Personally, being direct is my preferred style in print but in face-to-face communication, it may not be the best form of communication (unless you want a punch in the face). Again, it depends on your goals and the context in which you’re operating.

Update, January 2012: If you’re interested in some of the psychological research in skeptical communication and how to apply a best practice approach, read The Debunking Handbook – a short, concise guide to debunking (from the guys at http://www.skepticalscience.com).

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